Garden of Eaten: the Rise of Urban Gardening

Gardening is meditative, sustainable and cultivates community – plus you can eat what you grow! Little wonder there’s been a bloom in backyard farming, with vegie patches and fruit trees cropping up all over. Katherine Smyrk talks to the green thumbs.

When I call Costa Georgiadis he asks me if I wouldn’t mind phoning back in two minutes.

“I just came in from planting garlic, and I need to make a cup of tea.”

When I call back, the hirsute host of ABC’s Gardening Australia sounds more settled and content. I imagine him in his house in Bondi, nursing a steaming mug.

All talk these days seems to compulsively turn to COVID-19, and this conversation is no different. More specifically, we’re talking about how the peak of the lockdown saw nurseries around the country stripped bare of seedlings. Seed suppliers in Australia and New Zealand were reporting a sudden 10-fold surge in custom.

“People realised that the taken-for-granted infrastructure around our food and our supply chain, it wobbled. It wobbled big time,” Costa says. And while this at first resulted in hoarding and unseemly behaviour, he believes it also made people stop and think.

“Once they got through the fog, [they saw] they were part of the problem. And then they thought, Well, how could I not be part of the problem?”

And while he bemoans the ensuing shortage of backyard chickens (“You couldn’t buy a chook for love or money!”), Costa is thrilled at the thought that more and more people are taking an interest in their gardens.

He also firmly believes that spending time with your hands in the dirt is a foolproof anxiety reliever – an urgent requirement for all of us reeling from the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic.

“Spending some time in the garden puts your mind into another place, which is the kind of therapy that people need at this point,” he says. “And you can self-dispense this medication, daily, without your own personal garden trainer. You can actually say, I’m just gonna go out and have a look at the babies. And whether it’s your little succulent, or whether it’s the seedlings that have just popped up their first true leaves and are charging on into flowering, or becoming those spinach leaves or the first signs of a broccoli floret or whatever it may be, that’s a form of personal relief therapy. Because you’re actually stepping off the treadmill.”

He says it has been essential for his own mental health; that gardening stops him from obsessively watching news updates.

“Feed yourself something else,” he advises, “because if you just live off a diet of that, you’ll end up foetal-positioned, shaking in the backyard in the compost bin.”

The psychological benefits of gardening were not lost on Daniel, a 28-year-old Melburnian who decided to find solace in seedlings while his work was on hold. A renter living in an area with dubious soil quality, he went online and learned how to make himself standing planter beds, where he is now growing broccoli, chives and snow peas.

“It was definitely a way to get outside during iso, and making sure I wasn’t staying inside all the time,” he says. “It was getting outside, keeping active, keeping my mind active in terms of researching and learning.”

He was almost disappointed when his work started up again, because now he has much less time to spend in the garden. But he is determined to persevere with his new hobby, and is considering making his planter boxes available to friends with limited garden space. He likes the idea of creating a little community garden right in his backyard, and is pleased to see that he’s just one of many who are devoting their time to the slow, measured process of growing and tending plants.

Costa is also excited to see what the post-COVID gardening scene will look like.

“Gardening is cool again,” he says cheerily. “And it’s not just about what’s happened in the last two months.” He says the team at Gardening Australia has recently noticed a real change in the demographic of people who are watching and engaging with the show. They are now having great traction with people as young as 20, and also especially with young families, which he says is the greatest area of growth. He waxes lyrical about the gardening programs of early childhood education, and how that is starting to flow into primary and high schools as well. And he thinks all of these things will mean long-lasting change. “Behind the scenes I’m seeing these changes embed.”

The Merri Creek runs for 70km through the north of Melbourne, and nestled on one of its smooth bends, in the suburb of Coburg, is Joe’s Market Garden.

Over a low rosemary hedge you can see glistening green rows of kale, broccoli, rhubarb, silverbeet, and the small white dome of a greenhouse. The urban farm sits right next to a busy bike path. There are trains of families cycling, people in expensive exercise gear talking on the phone, solitary strollers watching their dogs ferret around in the bushes. A small group of people kick a footy in a patch of long grass.

Farmer Emily Connors has been working at Joe’s Market Garden for five years, and is now the farm manager. You can see her bent over the rows of vegies most times of the day; her work is open to everyone who happens to amble past.

“It means the community is very much involved,” she explains. “The community is constantly watching what we’re growing, how we’re growing it, what we are using to fertilise, so there’s this beautiful learning happening. So it’s like, Oh that’s where my silverbeet comes from. It’s very much a down-to-earth place, a very accessible place for a lot of people to understand how food might be grown.”

The farm is open on Saturdays, where the public can come and buy their vegies direct from the farm gate. There are regular community events, including live music from local bands and the popular Weed Dating days.

There has been a recent surge in community involvement in the garden, particularly from young families and students who live in the area, but Emily is careful to explain that the area has a long and rich history.

“I say this to everyone: the site’s Wurundjeri country, it’s been cultivated and grown lots of food for 50,000 years.” They have been working with the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation to establish a bush food section of the farm, and they are set to hire their first Indigenous bush food farmer.

But this particular two-acre plot has been farmed continuously for more than 150 years, starting as a Chinese market garden. Once one of nine in a 10km radius, it is the last market garden in inner Melbourne.

Italian migrant Joe Garita bought the farm in 1945, and ran it until it was sold to CERES – a neighbourhood environment park and community space – in 2003. The certified organic farm sells produce and vegie boxes straight to customers, and also provides produce to CERES for its on-site grocery and Fair Food program.

Emily explains that they are still using the seeds Joe was using in his time farming there.

“Every year the farm has saved the same seed year after year after year, particularly of broad beans, so the genetics of those broad beans are so suited to that soil. And there’s a whole lot of community that is really attached to the crops that we grow,” she says.

Joe himself was a pillar of the Italian community, and his family and friends still have a lot to do with the farm. There is also a large Lebanese community that frequents the garden, particularly when those broad beans are in season.

Backyards throughout the country have long been planted and harvested by migrant communities, and the steadily gentrifying suburb around Joe’s is still abundant with the fruit trees and garden beds they planted. It makes me think of Costa and his grandfather, who was a market gardener himself, and who taught Costa the ways of the green thumb. Costa, a landscape architect, talks about the posies of sweet peas his grandmother used to pick for him and his sisters, their strong sweet smell permeating the car ride home. He was hooked from a young age.

“My grandparents never sold it hardcore, not ‘You’ve got to be out in the garden,’” he says. “I wanted to be out in the garden, because by the time I’d found my grandfather out there I’d eaten a belly-full of strawberries and he would still be saying, ‘There’s more under there!’”

He also learned a lot from his grandfather about sustainability.

“He was a humble village market gardener, and he was doing all of the sustainability things. He was a permaculturist. He did all these things which in today’s terms are kind of hip, urban processes.”

I talk with Emily – inevitably, inexorably – about COVID-19. She says she started handing out seedlings to customers when the nurseries had sold out.

“There was that period of time where right at the beginning, where people just…they needed something. I could see it on their faces,” she says.

But her food security fears actually started during this past summer’s horrendous bushfire season. The smoke was so thick she sent volunteers and workers home, and she worked reduced hours with a facemask on. She was worried about farmers who worked closer to the fires, who would have to compromise their health to keep growing, and also noticed that delivery trucks from other states couldn’t get through with produce the public relies on.

“There was an increase in prices during that period,” she says. “We’ve sort of forgotten that because of coronavirus.”

These events made her more determined to promote gardening, farming and green community spaces in urban areas. “We all need to be advocating to ensure that our agricultural land is not rezoned, and we’re building smarter and ensuring that there’s enough green space for everyone.”

She believes one of the best ways to do that is to get people interested in gardening, whether in their backyards, or in community gardens or places like Joe’s.

“Even if they just grow one thing, one thing, that’s enough. Even if that thing dies, it doesn’t matter. Just plant something else. It’s not a big fail. You’re still feeding the soil,” she says.

Everyone I speak to at some point mentions how empowering gardening can be in the face of a world that feels so very uncontrollable.

“For me, it’s a political action. And it’s a joyful action,” says Emily. “The reason that I got into farming is I see it as an important way of contributing to our wish for a more carbon-free future. We’re growing things close to where we eat them. It’s important because we’re showing that it’s possible.”

Costa says he really believes the momentum seen during the pandemic is going to have long-term impacts.

“I don’t feel like I’m just looking through my happy‑clappy goggles, saying the world’s a big happy place of gardeners and there’s a Garden of Eden down Kings Way or something. No, no, no. This is about hyper-localising. The place where we’re going to drive the change is in the suburbs, retrofitting the suburbs, because that’s where people have their power.”

Costa points to the rise of bartering systems in communities, where people can trade their surfeit of beans for sourdough starter, where one neighbour can share an abundance of lemons and receive lettuce in return.

“It is a positive, constructive, self-esteem-regulating and family- and community-building space that people can put time into,” he says.

Ultimately, every little bit helps. When everything can feel like it’s careening out of control, there’s still the seedlings pushing their heads out of the soil. And that’s something.

“No matter what is happening in the world I cannot help but feel like I’m doing good,” says Emily. “I’m actually thinking about the future. You can’t not think about the future when you’re planting something. It teaches you to care. It does.”

Katherine Smyrk is a former Deputy Editor of The Big Issue.

First Published in The Big Issue edition #614.

Illustration by Annie Davidson.